Sofia’s Last Ambulance (2012)

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This is a feature length fly one the wall documentary, following the work of a Bulgarian ambulance crew in the city of Sofia. Pulling long shifts with sparse resources in a healthcare system stretched beyond breaking point, the three crew members Krassi, Mila and Plamen are up against ridiculous odds as they try to save lives. But they persevere. At one point, as the communication system with their HQ breaks down Plamen sighs ‘This country is lost’. It is hard to disagree with him when even the roads are crumbling away leading to potholes that constantly bounce the ambulance and its occupants around like a can of peas.

Bulgarian born director Ilian Metev made the decision to keep the cameras pretty much constantly trained on the crew. Occasionally we get some shots through the windshield of the ambulance as it drives along, or see a subject standing outside the vehicle. These never last long before we’re back to a close angle view of the protagonists. Audiences never get a proper look at the patients being treated or any members of the public involved in the cases attended by the ambulance. Metev did this to avoid what he called ‘sensational’ images that could distract from Krassi, Mila and Plamen; he wanted viewers to be relentlessly focussed on them.

This approach very much draws the viewer into their lives, work and city. I would say it is impossible to see this film without coming away feeling a bond of empathy with the three subjects. We share their frustration as they arrive at a call four hours after it was placed to find the patient dead, their down time waiting around for a call to come through and their dedication to the work – not only for the sake of the much needed paycheques but also that of those they help.

A lot of filming was done with small cameras mounted on the ambulance’s dashboard, giving many scenes featuring nothing but talking heads. To begin with I found this frustrating as I wanted to see more of what the documentary’s subjects were seeing and working with. Whilst this frustration diminished as I got more involved with the film, it never went away completely and I do feel a few wider angle shots or scene setting sequences showing more of Sofia and the city environment would have been good.

The footage was shot over two years. Beforehand, Metev spent a month travelling with the crew himself, getting to know them personally. Something of his bond with them comes across in his work as his filming techniques try to form a similar bond between the viewer and the subjects. 120 hours of footage was edited down, what we see on screen isn’t necessarily in chronological order, it’s loosely fitted together to resemble the passage of a long shift and the toll it extracts from those who work it.

No specific message is meant to be conveyed by the documentary, Metev wants audiences to interpret it in their own way. He decided to make this film after his own experiences of the Bulgarian healthcare system. This is Metev’s first feature, his previous documentary short Goleshovo about a small, isolated Bulgarian town that is fading away won numerous accolades including a BBC Development Award. Hopefully he will return to our screens with more windows into the lives of others very soon.

Director: Ilian Metev
Cast: Krassimir Yordanov, Mila Mikhailova, Plamen Slavkov (all appearing as themselves)
Runtime: 76 mins
Country: Bulgaria/Germany/Croatia

Film Rating: ★★★½☆

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